WASHINGTON (Oct. 26)
Israel’s appeal for Jonathan Pollard’s release during U.S.-mediated peace talks last week came as no surprise to Middle East observers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors have raised the issue in countless meetings with Clinton — and with Presidents Bush and Reagan — ever since the former U.S. naval intelligence analyst was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for spying for Israel.
But no one expected the Pollard issue to come hurtling to the fore as a last- minute stumbling block to closing the deal last Friday on a new Israeli- Palestinian accord.
With the agreement signed and Pollard still sitting in a federal prison cell in North Carolina, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu’s gambit to win Pollard’s release will help or hinder his cause.
Clinton rejected the demand to release Pollard immediately as part of a deal sweetener, but he promised to “review this matter seriously.”
The Clinton administration last reviewed Pollard’s case in 1996, deciding at that time not to grant him executive clemency because of the “enormity” of his offenses, “his lack of remorse” and “the damage done to our national security.”
Netanyahu, who had hoped to bring Pollard — now an Israeli citizen — back to Israel, urged Clinton before departing Washington to “find mercy” and release him. He said Pollard’s continued imprisonment was the one disappointment of the peace talks.
Exactly what transpired in the frenetic, final hours leading up to last Friday’s White House signing ceremony — and the question of whether Clinton and Netanyahu arrived at an understanding about Pollard’s eventual release – - remains a subject of speculation. And while the impact the entire episode will have on Pollard’s fate also remains an open question, the immediate public reaction painted a bleak picture, at least for the short term.
U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill were quick to lambast Clinton for even considering Pollard’s release.
U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted Pollard for the Reagan administration, said releasing him would be “one of the most disgraceful acts by an American president in the history of this country.”
“If the president releases Jonathan Pollard,” he said, “his legacy will be: it is OK to lie and it’s OK to spy.”
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for his part, demanded that Clinton cancel the review.
“I think it would be a tremendous mistake for the United States to start putting traitors on the negotiating tables as a pawn, and I hope the administration will now say they will not, under any circumstance, release Pollard.”
American Jewish leaders who have been pushing for Pollard’s release voiced differing views about how last week’s events would affect his case.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the negative reaction that erupted following news of Pollard’s possible release was “quite astounding.”
“I don’t know what impact that will have, but frankly until now nothing else has helped either, so I don’t think you can really evaluate whether this was a setback or not.”
One of Pollard’s leading advocates over the years, Rabbi Avi Weiss, said he was particularly concerned by Gingrich’s comments, which he said risked turning the Pollard case into a “political issue.”
“I’ve always felt it was important that the message go to the president that he’s not going to be criticized by the Republican side” for his actions regarding Pollard, said Weiss, who is the president of AMCHA — the Coalition for Jewish Concerns.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has taken no official position on the Pollard issue, said he thought the episode was counter-productive, particularly in the context of the peace negotiations.
“Every time that it surfaces I think that it hurts Mr. Pollard, because what it does is it brings out the opposition,” Foxman said.
Marlene Post, national president of Hadassah, which voted about five years ago to recommend that Pollard’s sentence be commuted on humanitarian grounds, had a different take.
She said the fact that the subject was raised can only be positive because “it puts it back on the table, and it means the president is now accountable.”
The timing in bringing up the issue, she added, makes no difference. “Whenever the subject is raised, because of the nature of the subject, there will be outcries,” Post said.
Most of Pollard’s advocates in the Jewish community say they wish last week’s events had played out more quietly and without such a public display.
But “we can’t rewrite what occurred,” said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
“The issue is now on the table again with a greater ferocity and we have to address it. And I still believe the overwhelming sense of the community is that it’s time to let Pollard go and we have to let the White House know how we feel,” he said.